Italy Tour Central Italy, October 2017

Central Italy, October 2017

In October 2017 Marguerite, her dear friend Nedra Johnson Mathis, and Nedra's brother Mac Johnson and his wife Marcy Johnson embarked on a Grand Circle Travel trip to Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. Nedra had taken over 20 wonderful trips with Grand Circle before her husband Clayton passed away in May of 2016. That meant that she and Marguerite got some very nice bonuses in our hotel assignments! Mac and Marcy have also traveled for many years, both together and independently with their son and/or daughter who are both now grown. Nedra, Mac and Marcy started the trip in Rome for a few days before Marguerite joined them. Marcy had gotten tickets for an afternoon tour of the Museum Borghese the day Marguerite arrived and it was truly lovely. The trip was basically a few days in Rome, a few days on the Amalfi Coast near Naples, a few days in Tuscany/Umbria, and finally a few days near Florence. Marguerite liked this because it only had 4 days of packing and moving suit cases.

ROME, ITALY -- Day 1

After a very long airline trip for Marguerite from San Diego to Toronto to Rome (about 20 hours!), Marguerite and Nedra checked into the Hotel Victoria along with Mac and Marcy and 23 other travelers. That evening we gathered with fellow travelers to meet the Program Director, Ben Slavin. Ben grew up in the United States and moved to Italy as a young adult to pursue a professional career as an opera singer. Sadly, his vocal chords gave out after a few years and he could no longer sing. He has been doing tourist work for about 20 years but often entertained us with a bit of an aria from an opera or more popular music!


We left Rome after breakfast and began the bus ride to the cliff-side town of Sorrento. On the way, we stopped to visit a local buffalo mozzarella cheese factory. Buffalo mozzarella is the premier type of mozzarella in many Italian dishes. It is crafted using a centuries-old technique perfected by local cheese makers. The buffalos are quite content to spend their days lying around. They are milked twice daily and choose the time to be milked by walking into the milking pens! In the pens, they are washed and then automatically hooked up to milking machines. When their udders are empty, they are automatically unhooked and they can wander back to their pens where there is plenty of food. Unfortunately, they are very dirty animals and we did not get to see the steps taken to clean them before milking!! We did enjoy a light lunch with freshly-made mozzarella which had very little taste (it needed spices and salt!) We arrived at the Cesare Augusto Hotel in the early evening and had dinner at the hotel.

SORRENTO Day 3 -- City Tour and Positano

We first took a walking tour of the city and saw the cathedral, Piazzas Sant'Antonino, the Public Gardens and various city streets with lovely shops and restaurants. In the afternoon, we took a bus to the small town of Positano which is in the heart of the Amalfi Coast. The city is high on some hills and the home of lots of lemon trees used to make soaps, and the wonderful liquor, Lemoncello! Mac and Nedra both enjoy hiking and walking up and down hills; Marcy and Marguerite enjoy shopping and drinking cappuccino, so we made two wonderful travel pairs when we had free time.

When we returned to the hotel, we heard a local expert on Italy and the Camorra talk about the crime syndicate (mafia) and their impact on the Campania region of Southern Italy.

SORRENTO Day 4 -- Pomeii and Home Hosted Dinner

In the morning we departed Sorrento by bus for a half-day excursion to Pompeii. Totally buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 and not rediscovered until 1748, Pompeii's antiquities offer an unparalleled view of Roman life. We explored the most significant sites with a local expert guide and learned how the people lived, built homes, and conducted business. We learned that when the people were buried by the ash from the volcano, their bodies "evaporated" and what was left was a hole in the ash that would collapse when opened. An archeologist of some note figured out that if he opened a small hole in the top of the cavity and then filled it with plaster, there would be a perfect casting of the body. Several of these casts are in the Popeii museum and are quite fascinating. We also learned that the "world's oldest profession" was in full swing in Pompeii and doing quite well!

After returning to the hotel, we had some free time and then prepared to attend a special Home-Hosted Dinner with a local family. The 27 travelers were divided into three groups. Our group met a large extended family that had cows, chickens, and sheep on their small plot of land in a more rural area of the town. They also had a garden and space for grandparents, a daughter and husband, a few sons and wives, and several children. One of the children, a 14-year-old girl, spoke English quite well and served as our translator. We had several dishes made with delicious tomatoes and eggplant, some homemade wine (the white tasted like vinegar but the red was pretty tasty), and some excellent pasta, bread and dessert.

SORRENTO Day 5 -- Isle of Capri

This day we embarked on a full-day tour of the Isle of Capri, located 7 miles from Sorrento. Capri rises abruptly from the azure waters of the Mediterranean. Set like a gem in the Bay of Naples, just opposite Mount Vesuvius, this fabled 4 x 2 mile island has been a popular international destination for centuries. We were introduced to the charms of Capri that included a short crossing by jetfoil. We also ascended by funicular to the narrowest part of the island where we visited the small town of Capri with chic shops and picturesque whitewashed houses. The views were breathtaking! We then continued to the highest point of the island and tour of the village of Anacapri. After lunch, Mac and Nedra took a long walk and Marguerite and Marcy enjoyed some shopping and cappuccino. Then we all enjoyed some cool, refreshing gelato before returning to the funicular train to return to the boat back to Sorrento.


After breakfast we boarded our bus to travel to the Tuscany region of Italy. Our first stop was the Montecassino Abbey. The original hilltop sanctuary was almost completely destroyed during WWII in 1944; the abbey that stands there today was faithfully restored after the war. A local guide showed us the oldest section of the abbey's monastery that was virtually untouched by the tragic bombings that took place. We learned about the history of the bombings that included repeated pinpoint artillery attacks on Allied assault troops. This caused their leaders to conclude the abbey was being used by the Germans as an observation post, at the least. Fears escalated along with casualties and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, it was marked for destruction. On 15 February American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage. The raid failed to achieve its objective, as German paratroopers occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the ruins. The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost. The capture of Montecassino resulted in 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses being far fewer, estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded.

Our next stop was the Tuscan town of Chianciano, famous since the age of the ancient Etruscans for its thermal mineral waters. We checked into the Le Fonti Grand Hotel for a three night stay. Because of Nedra's GCT status, we were assigned the "luxury suite" on the top floor. A lovely large room with an enormous double-sized jacuzzi tub! There was no easy way to get into or out of the tub to even take a shower, not to mention it would take a huge amount of water to fill it up!! We decided to move to a more conventional room on another floor and were quite happy there for the rest of our stay!


After breakfast, we visited the Etruscan Museum where we learned about the Etruscan origins of Chianciano and discovered more about this mysterious civilization that preceded the Romans in this area. There were many artifacts of gold that were very delicate and beautiful. We then explored the village of Pienza. This is a Renaissance town that overlooks a large valley and a mountain peak that was once a volcano. The focus of the town's design is its piazza which is closed on one side by the cathdral and Palazzo Piccolomini on the other. This is where many scenes in the motion picture The English Patient were filmed.

Finally we visited another cheese maker to learn about the production of sheep-milk cheeses at the Pianporcino cheese maker farm. We sampled quite a few that were each aged a different length of time. This tasting was accompanied by lovely red wine and a very happy time was had by all the guests!!


This morning we explored Cortona, one of Tuscany's loveliest hillside villages. It is at an elevation of 1800 feet and it was a very winding ride up to the top to visit the town! Cortona is also a Etruscan city and looks like it did when it was a medieval city-state. The fortress overlooking the town was built by the Medici family in 1549. It was here in Cortona that the author Frances Mayes bought the home she restored in Under the Tuscan Sun. The motion picture was also filmed in Cortona.


We checked out of the hotel and headed to the medieval walled city of Siena, built during the Middle Ages. From the 12th century into the 16th century, its banking activities and trade in wool and textiles placed it in direct rivalry with Florence. Its influence decreased after that time, as it spent much of its energies in defense against foreign conquerors. Today ridges dominate the land between the valleys of Arbia and Elsa Siena. Historically rich and powerful Siena still retains the air of the Tuscan Middle Ages. Automobiles are banned from the city center. We visited the local cathedral and viewed many colorful frescoes by Perugino, the master of Raphael.

In the afternoon we departed for Montecatini and checked into the Francia E Quirinale Hotel for 5 more nights.


We explored the elegant and beautifully preserved Art Nouveau spa district, although were unable to visit a Spa as it was closed for repairs. We then visited a preserved medieval village situated high about the "new" town that offers spectacular views. For dinner we visited a large plant nursery and learned how the unique micro-climate and fertile soil create the ideal conditions for growing a variety of plants. We had dinner in an old farmhouse restaurant that included several local dishes and lots of fresh vegetables along with wine.

FLORENCE -- Day 11

We boarded the bus after breakfast for a wonderful day in Florence. Florence came into its own as a commercial and cultural center during the 13th century, when merchants and tradesmen organized guilds that commissioned works of art to adorn their churches and palaces. It was the revival of interest in art and architecture that gave birth to the Italian Renaissance between the 14th and 16th centuries. We began our day with a walking tour of the city, stopping first to visit the Accademia Gallery, home of Michelangelo's famous statue, David. Afterwards, we continued the tour with the Duomo that included the impressive bronze doors, the Gates of Paradise. After lunch, several of us visited the Uffizi Gallery where we enjoyed several wonderful paintings by Botticelli, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. We then did a little shopping before returning to the hotel in Montecatini.

PISA and LUCCA -- Day 12

GCT had intended a scheduled tour to Pisa but not enough people were interested so our wonderful Tour Director, Ben, arranged a special trip for some of us to go on the train to Pisa, spend time with the Leaning Tower, the Baptistry, and the Cathedral. We then took the train back and several travelers stopped off in the little town of Lucca to observe a "ComicCon" extravaganza that rivaled those in California. Nedra, Marcy, and Marguerite opted to go on back to the hotel but Mac took some great photos of the folks all dressed up like comic book characters!

VINCI -- Day 13

Today we visited the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci who was born out of wedlock to a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina, in Vinci in the region of Florence. Leonardo was raised by his paternal grandparents and was educated in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. He later worked in Milan, Rome, Bologna and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I of France.

Leonardo was, and is, renowned primarily as a painter. Among his works, the Mona Lisa is the most famous and most parodied portrait and The Last Supper the most reproduced religious painting of all time. Leonardo's drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on items as varied as the euro coin, textbooks, and T-shirts. Leonardo is also revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualized flying machines, a type of armoured fighting vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and the double hull. We saw a number of Leonardo's most practical inventions displayed as working models at the Museum of Vinci.

After visiting the Museo Leonardiano and the small town of Vinci, we returned to our hotel to prepare for our trip back to the USA. That evening we again went to the top of Montecatini for a Farewell Dinner in a lovely old restaurant.


We arose at 3 am to get to the Florence airport for our long trip home. Marguerite flew from Florence to Frankfurt, then 11 hours from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, then "puddle jumped" back to San Diego. Total time en route was over 20 hours! It was a wonderful trip with visits to many off the beaten path places, and the opportunity to spend time together with Nedra, Mac, and Marcy was the best part of the trip!

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